A strong case can be made that over the last year-plus during the COVID-19 pandemic, the standards of what constitute an “album” have slid significantly from the reams of live, acoustic, live acoustic, and stripped-down or downright scratch track material that has made it onto the market as legitimate musical works. It’s a disturbing trend further clogging up an already glutted market for music.
This Miranda Lambert/Jack Ingram/Jon Randall collaboration made up of crude rough tracks might be the most glaring example of this downgrading yet, and from a major artist on a major label no less. This isn’t some bedroom artist releasing stuff on Bandcamp. This is being put forward from a woman who’s won 58 major industry awards.
But it would take a pretty cold heart to not recognize there’s a sweetness to this project, some really great songwriting, and a few really excellent performances regardless of the lo-fi and duct taped nature of the effort that renders The Marfa Tapes worthy of the rather strong praise it’s been receiving, regardless of its homespun nature.
If it wasn’t Miranda, would we be making such a big of a fuss about this? Of course not. But here we are. And a big fuss has been deserved to be made about Jack Ingram and Jon Randall in the mainstream for years and never really was, but now here it is. It’s just the latest example of Miranda championing worthy songwriters just like she’s done with her Pistol Annies side project, and like she’s done for years on her albums, despite whatever more commercial interests have crept into her career as well.
If you’re a serious independent music fan, you’ve probably spent hours rummaging through archival sites and YouTube digging up material on your favorite artists, and even more importantly, being able to find it. That’s not always the experience for most mainstream fans whose listening experiences are much more controlled and curated. An album like this is kind of like an Easter egg hunt, and a rare opportunity to poke your head behind the curtain. This imbues the experience with an excitement not always felt by mainstream ears, almost like you’re engaging in a forbidden enterprise.
Could other mainstream country artists do this—release completely raw tracks as legitimate consumable material? Some maybe. But some need the studio and its tricks to hide their shortcomings. And they don’t have close friends like Jack Ingram and Jon Randall on speed dial to help bolster the experience. But what renders useless all of the standard concerns for flubs, listening quality, production, et. al. that we normally levy against albums when judging their merit is the spirit of this project, and the sheer quality of the songs themselves.
Whether it’s songs previously heard by the world like the award-winning “Tin Man” or “Tequila Does,” or songs that are new to us like “Am I Right or Amarillo,” “Waxahachie,” “Breaking a Heart,” or “We Will Always Have the Blues,” The Marfa Tapes really is a formidable songwriting performance, with no varnishing to hide what happens to make these compositions beautiful as written words and melody.
It’s not always the mainstream songs themselves, it’s the layers upon layers of overproduction that weigh them down and bury their heart that results in a commonly repellent listening experience for cultured ears. Selections from Miranda Lambert’s own discography aren’t immune from this outcome.
Along with The Marfa Tapes exposing the art of songwriting and a couple of worthy souls in Jack Ingram and Jon Randall, it illustrates how unnecessary and oppressive so much of the overzealous production is to modern country music, like you must expend a ton of effort and money to make a song good. Strange how recordings with absolutely no embellishment can be more fetching than ones with all the bells and whistles.
All that said, it is a shame that the first time we’re hearing some of these songs like “I Don’t Like It,” or “Am I Right or Amarillo,” or “Breaking a Heart” is on an effort whose audience may be limited from the sheer lack of any production at all. If or when a studio version comes along (and Miranda has said of few of these will be re-recorded), the new car smell will be sort of worn off. That’s the risk you run when you start digging for unreleased tracks from your favorite artists, and one of the reasons many fans recuse themselves from the practice. They want to hear all the songs and fresh the first time they’re able to behold a new album in full.
Miranda seems to take singing her parts very seriously, even complaining at one point that her capo was crooked, and a string was buzzing. Jack and Jon, they sing just fine, but seem to take this simply as creating scratch material. Still, it’s amazing how stripping everything down can expose the story, melody, and sincerity behind a song like little else where you really focus on the words and message. Listening to “Tin Man,” it feels like a completely different song from the studio version, beyond the slightly different rendition. You recognize nuances in the melody and words you didn’t hear before.
What’s also advantageous about The Marfa Tapes is just how Texan the whole experience is. Even if Texas doesn’t loom large in your particular ethos (or you even find it off-putting), the sense of home and familiarity it graces this project with gives it a warmth it otherwise might lack. There really is a theme that is interwoven through all of these songs, and not just from titles of Texas towns like “Amarillo,” “Marfa,” “Waxahachie,” it’s also the little references like to The Broken Spoke that makes this material feel loved.
If you had taken this entire body of work and made it into a studio effort, it would make for one hell of a traditional country record. That’s one of the frustrations while listening to The Marfa Tapes. Why couldn’t Miranda Lambert or anyone else make a mainstream record with this same track list, only done proper in a studio, but without all the overproduction?
Either way, The Marfa Tapes feels like a bit more than just a conversation piece, or a side project, or some scratch tracks cobbled together to tide folks over during the COVID pandemic. It feels like a blueprint for how country music in the mainstream could move forward in a way that’s more resonant with audiences and more respectful of the song. Will it actually result in this auspicious outcome? It’s speculative.
But The Marfa Tapes is one of the increasingly-frequent opportunities for mainstream country artists to do something a little bit outside of the box. This wouldn’t work every time, but it works here. And along with all the very fair concerns and complaints about the lack of quality of the recordings that some will bring forth about this album, it still feels like a sum positive, not just for Jon Randall, Jack Ingram, and Miranda Lambert, but for country music in general that The Marfa Tapes made it to the public.
1 1/2 Guns Up
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This article has been updated.